NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays (19-15-7-3) are in the middle of a fight for a playoff spot with 26 games remaining.
The past week was challenging with a road trip to the Indy Fuel (27-16-4-0) and Wheeling Nailers (15-23-5-1) that resulted in a 1-0-1-0 record and two games canceled due to poor ice conditions in Wheeling.
The Stingrays then returned home to face the Orlando Solar Bears (25-18-4-1). They fought back from a two-goal deficit to take the lead and then surrender two goals in the last five minutes to lose a wild contest 7-6.
The Stingrays are not consistent and their inconsistency is keeping them out of a playoff spot. The Stingrays battle the Solar Bears and Jacksonville Icemen (20-18-3-3) this weekend and have to seize on every opportunity to make a push for the playoffs.
Head Coach Ryan Blair knows there is time left and with facing the Solar Bears seven more times, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits four more times, and the Icemen six more times, the Stingrays can control their fate, even from behind in the standings. With the canceled games against Wheeling not being rescheduled, win percentage will decide who gets an opportunity to play for the Kelly Cup this year.
“It’s unfortunate, a missed opportunity. But there’s no guarantee in any game so we have to go out there and find a way to earn two points,” said Blair. “We’ve got an opportunity with plenty of games left in the schedule to control our destiny. There’s lots of games that we can win coming up and that has to be our mindset moving forward and not thinking about the what ifs of the past.”
The Stingrays’ issues with consistency were highlighted in Wednesday night’s loss to Orlando. The Stingrays came out of the gates strong, got behind in the second period, and fought back to take the lead in the third period before letting the Solar Bears score the final two to steal the victory.
“I thought we started really strong, then fell asleep for most of the second period and then I thought we had a push in the third. But that’s not a very good recipe to play 35 or 40 minutes out of a 60-minute game. It’s something we need to continue to talk about, continue to address and find different ways to get the guys to buy into it,” said Blair. “I think the starts have been much better as of late but it’s also about how you finish. The finish is more important than the start. At times we don’t start on the right foot and then we find a way to grind out the back half of a game and see some results. But it’s a matter of combining the two now and sustain a 60 minute effort.”
The Stingrays will have an opportunity to redeem themselves on Friday against Orlando before hosting the Icemen on Saturday evening.
“I expect the guys to have a pretty sour taste in their mouths from the way it ended Wednesday. Being up 6-5 and regardless of (Alex) Dubeau coming out of the game, we’re up 6-5 with five minutes left you have to find a way to close out that game. It should be a sour feeling. It should sting. They should come out with some jam and urgency Friday night,” said Blair. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. I think our guys will be ready this weekend. In terms of motivation, when you look at the standings there’s not much that needs to be said.”
Forward Caleb Herbert, in a pregame interview a few weeks ago, alluded that the team still hasn’t found their identity yet. Some fans were caught off guard by that admission and thought it was odd that such an experienced team hadn’t coalesced around an identity halfway through the season.
“I don’t think it’s anything in terms of character or culture in the locker room. It’s just a little bit of inconsistency in our game,” said Blair. “We’re really good one night and we’re a little bit behind the next with our decision making and our puck management. We haven’t been able to put together a really solid, full 60 minutes on a consecutive basis. That, I think, for the guys in the room and for us as a staff is an identity that we need to have. I think that’s what he’s alluding to, that we haven’t really been able to find any true consistency throughout the course of the season. The confidence has been up and down and that’s on us, that’s on the guys to find ways to manufacture it themselves. There’s definitely no issues inside the locker room. But I do think we need to find some more consistency in our game which will hopefully solidify more of an identity. We’re urgent, we’re running out of time right now. We need to find that as soon as possible.”
The Stingrays have been improving on special teams. The home power play has risen to third in the league, converting 21.1% of the time. But again, consistency on special teams has been an issue, and as such the Stingrays lead the league in shorthanded goals against, allowing 11 so far this year, including one by Orlando on Wednesday night.
“It’s us not being connected at times. And us being more urgent when there are turnovers and outworking the PK,” said Blair. “We’ve got stung more than a couple of times against Orlando. They’re a team that is very, very aggressive on the penalty kill, whether it is up ice in the neutral zone or in their zone. It’s something we talked about and we need to continue to talk about. We need to find ways to outwork the penalty kill for a full two minutes and then that urgency will be rewarded and they won’t be rewarded with any shorthanded momentum or opportunities.”
Goaltender Alex Dubeau, who left Wednesday night’s game late in the third period, is expected to be available for this weekend. Dubeau ended up suffering from a severe cramp and as a result, isn’t expected to miss any time this weekend. Tariq Hammond recently returned from a stint with the Hendersonville Silver Knights. Hammond is a shutdown possession-oriented defenseman and looks to provide skill and leadership to the defensive corps for the next stretch of the season.
“He was a big piece before he went up. He hasn’t played a ton of games over the last 6-7 weeks, so maybe a little bit of rust over the next couple of games. But he’s a worker, and he’s a leadership guy that wants to do things right, so we’re happy to have him back for sure,” said Blair.
Another piece added to the Stingrays was the assignment of forward Yannick Turcotte from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Turcotte has been under contract with the Sound Tigers for the past four years but has played mainly for the Worchester Railers. In parts of three seasons for the Railers, he has suited up for 125 ECHL games and amassed 527 penalty minutes. He looks to bring a level of physicality to the Stingrays not seen since Trevor Gilles last suited up for the Rays.
“It was an opportunity for him to come down to our league and if wasn’t us, it would be somewhere else. He’s a guy that brings a lot of energy and a lot of speed and tenacity to a line up and I think it’ll be a little bit of a boost for us. Hopefully we get him going right away this weekend,” said Blair. “He can skate and he’s tough. Look for him to play the right way with a good north-south game and hard on the walls.”
The Stingrays and Solar Bears kick off the weekend tonight at 7:05 pm ET at the North Charleston Coliseum.